I’d like to thank the folks at IFC Center for allowing me to interview theater patrons both before and after one of their midnight screenings of El Topo that took place in April.
I have a preferred version of this video that I cannot make readily available due to rights and permissions issues. If you’d like to see it drop me a line.
screened Saturday February 23 2008 (at 10AM) on Image/Abkco DVD in Weehawken NJ
Screening #1: December 2006, IFC Center – opening night premiere of a new digital print restored for the upcoming Abkco/Image Entertainment DVD supervised by Jodorowsky. Yoko Ono scheduled to introduce the film but pulls out for fear of her ex-chauffeur stalking and threatening her. That was about as much excitement as the evening had to offer, as by a third of the way into the film I had nodded off. Despite the heapings of noisy gunfights, sodomy and lesbianism, my brain cells instinctively powered down in reaction to the overbearing presence of what it deemed a gratuitous display of shock cinema. Or perhaps it was the pseudo-philosophical babblings of characters who lulled me into a defensive slumber. When I finally awoke to the sound of an entire village being wiped out mercilessly by a shotgun-toting monk, who then consummated the film in a climax ripped baldly from Vietnam war newsreels, I assured myself that I hadn’t missed much…
Screening #2: 10 a.m., sitting on my bed in a cold tranquil February morning. This time I don’t fall asleep, and what’s more, I’m taken in by the film’s swagger, its audio-visual abundance, the way its execution rendered its conceptual gimmickry into real moments and tactile sensations. In the days and weeks that follow, I try to make my peace with the film.
I compile the webliography as with all my Shooting entries, and in doing so I glean through a wide swath of opinions, high and low, past and present. Through the writings of J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenabum I gain an appreciation of the signifiance of the film in spawning midnight movie culture and the cult of adoration surrounding the film from insomniac headtrippers, as well as the backlash that followed. The film’s attributions being a profound door to transcendental enlightenment for the drug culture of a past era seem to burden its present reputation, as more than one critic dismisses the film as pastiche gibberish – even Hoberman, who tripped with Jodorowsky in Mexico, seems sheepish about extolling the film. But for me, seeing it in the sober daylight, I think it’s an indelible achievement in cinema-as-automatic writing.
What had changed for me between screenings #1 and #2? Could the vagaries of my own viewing state account for the difference? It’s frightening to think, let alone admit how much one’s own tiredness and mood can affect their response, but that’s the human truth of it. Still, I think a movie like El Topo seems particularly susceptible of triggering an unpredictable response – there’s something I still can’t put my finger on.
I keep trying to break the film down into pieces I can understand. I’ve tried my hand at a video essay to elucidate what I feel is the film’s essence, but I have neither the time nor the talent to arrive at anything that, say, a Peter Tscherkassky could do with another film. I’ve settled for something a little more banal and perhaps cowardly for a video essay – asking other viewers for their opinion…
Screening #3: Midnight screening in NYC. In trying to defer to others under the pretense of understanding the “midnight movie” phenomenon, I stand outside the theater lobby and interview patrons. I even observe people’s reactions during the screenings to gauge what they laugh and gasp at. (Why would anyone laugh at a line of peasants being arbitrarily executed?) I don’t find much of a connection with what others are saying and what’s going on in my head, but how could I expect to when all that connects us is a film that is open to any variety of responses? All I’m really left with is my own response to contend with.
Still my opinion is one somewhat founded upon reaction to others. On many levels it’s a film that’s easy to ridicule, perhaps too easy: its flagrant borrowing of Biblical and mythical tropes, its misogyny, its P.T. Barnumesque exhibitionism of human freaks and gross-out effects all feels obvious. But something about this blatantness is what is behind the brilliance of the film, that it does function on multiple levels – the obvious and the sublime. There’s a certain frequency the film attains at points that feels singularly uncanny and just right if you happened to be tuned in. It’s chiefly in the insistence of the montage, how it keeps bombarding you with images, cuts, flashes, each scene proclaiming “let there be…” with sanctimonious bombast. It’s pretentious, yes, and it may amount to nothing in terms of meaning, but as a flow of imagery, its sensuality is insistent until it becomes indelible.
I arrive at this – a film’s worth is ultimately in whether it lives and breathes in your presence. I can’t deny that El Topo is a living film. Even in its ample depictions of violent, bloody death, it oozes with life.
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I haven’t been terribly active on this blog in the past month, but I have a good excuse – two, actually. One is that I’ve been diligently working on another draft of my script, just in time for it to be shopped at the film market of the Shanghai International Film Festival next month. I won’t be able to go however as I’ll be tied up in the launch of another venture, one that has had me watching dozens of Chinese movies and cold-calling Chinese film scholars and other academics for the past few months. Things are going well enough that I thought to make mention of this venture, especially following the success of our first official screening.
dGenerate Films is a venture spearheaded by my good friend and indie producer extraordinaire Karin Chien. Last year through some resourceful linking among her extensive network of contacts, she was able to bring together an impressive group of collaborators, funders, filmmakers, resource providers and general supporters for a common goal: to bring the real life visions of contemporary independent and underground cinema from China into the spotlight. By partnering with the Tribeca Film Institute and Amazon.com’s new digital delivery platform Reframe, dGenerate will distribute previously undistributed media from China via on-demand DVD and download. We are set to launch this summer with a dozen or so titles that we think represents the most aesthetically cutting edge and socially incisive work that American audiences have yet to see.
Take for instance Supergirls!, a candid documentary that looks at the single biggest display of electoral democracy that ever occurred in China’s history: namely, the voting for the first winner of China’s answer to American Idol. Director Jian Yi spent the better part of a year following 10 of the 80,000 teenage girls trying out for Super Girl Singing Contest, China’s most popular TV show ever. More than just a reality-TV pop piece, the documentary exposes an intriguing subtext to the phenomenon of the show, as the tomboyish winner of the inaugural contest inspires a wave of androgyny affecting millions of Chinese girls from city to countryside. You can listen to Jian Yi’s interview with NPR on the film by visiting this NPR link.
The same interview features Karin talking about the dGenerate venture and its relevance in the contemporary landscape of Chinese film distribution, where most independent Chinese filmmakers have no access to a wider audience, let alone the means to make money from their efforts. “”When you watch a martial arts movie, what do you learn about modern China?” Karin wonders. You can read and listen to more of her thoughts and watch an excerpt from Supergirls! here. This third link has a clip from another film we are slated to release, Raised from Dust by Gan Xiao’er, a film depicting the struggles of a rural Chinese Christian community.
Needless to say we are getting some good buzz in advance of our launch. Al Gore’s magazine GOOD also profiled us in their blog, embedding a clip from yet another film planned for our initial lineup, San Yuan Li by Ou Ning and Cao Fei.
Hope you enjoy these links as we build to our summer launch. You know where to find updates!
Many thanks to Matt Zoller Seitz for lending his insights on the film for this video essay. I and many other New Yorkers will miss Matt as he and his family embark upon the next frontier of their life, coincidentally in the same state as the pilgrims in this film. I can’t help but draw a parallel between Josey Wales and Matt – as individualistic as they both are, they can’t help but draw a crowd of supporters around them.
screened April 25, 2008 on Warner DVD in Weehawken NJ
“An army of one,” the poster for The Outlaw Josey Wales proclaims, its space dominated by director-star Clint Eastwood brandishing his trademark feral squint and massive six-guns, an icon of rugged individualism carried over from his immortal starring roles for Sergio Leone. Eastwood wrestles – perhaps not altogether successfully – with his protagonist’s proto-Ramboesque vigilantism, alternately ingratiating audience blood lust while pointing out the emotional vulnerabilities of this otherwise remorseless killing machine. The film both indulges in and subverts Western formula, gradually chipping away at Josey Wales’ stolid, trauma-borne impassivity by gathering around him a ragtag band of frontier types (an aging chief, a squaw and two Jawhawk pioneers, all perfectly played) who ultimately combine to form a progressive vision of a diverse, self-determining Western culture. The script (by Sonia Chernus and initial director Philip Kaufman) and direction reference a litany of Western classics and directors: not just Eastwood’s mentors Leone and Don Siegel, but also Ford (characterization through broad typing) , Hawks (vibrant ensemble work and budding sense of community), and Peckinpah (ecstatically choreographed violence). Sharing a concern with Eastwood’s Unforgiven for the necessity of violence and the responsibilities of citizenry under the rule of societal corruption, this is more expansive and subtle in its re-visioning of the West, as well as the more optimistic; for all of its contradictions, it’s one you could actually build a future upon.
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Hope it’s not too late to let all of you in NYC know that this Friday you have a special opportunity to watch the latest film by Jia Zhangke (if you’re going to Cannes to see his new feature, I don’t want to hear about it; for the rest of us, this is the best we’ll have until Toronto or NYFF), as well as several compelling documentary works that will collectively show you just what a mindblowing bundle of contradictions China is today.
You’ll also have an opportunity to screen SAN YUAN LI by the dynamic duo of Cao Fei and Ou Ning (their last film MEISHI STREET played at MOMA’s Documentary Fortnight). SAN YUAN LI will be one of the initial offerings by dGenerate Films, a new venture in which I am a partner, which will launch this summer to bring Chinese underground and independent works to wider audiences via DVD and digital delivery. I’ll have more details on this in the weeks to come (when I’m less buried in Chinese screener DVDs).
Admission is FREE – RSVP required – Spread the word!
Friday, 05/09/2008, 6:30–8:30pm (RSVP)
Rapid and irreversible change is the constant reality that China faces up to now. Whether preserving Shangri-la or exploring the “village-amid-the-city” phenomenon in Guangzhou, this program of five short films – featuring the latest works of Jia Zhang-ke and Guo Xiaolu – strive to make sense of the changes and capture pieces of history that are being eroded away fast.
TEN YEARS (WO MEN DE SHI NIAN) Director/Writer: Jia Zhang-ke Cast: Zhao Tao, Tian Yuan, Liang Jing Dong 2007 | 8 mins | Video | Color | Narrative | Mandarin w/ES A woman and a photographer see each other on a train year after year as it passes through cities and fields. The two women never converse, yet their virtually wordless bond expresses a world of emotions.
A HOUSE ON A PLAIN Director: Li Qiang 2006 | 18 mins | Video | Color | Documentary | Chinese w/ES Lao Li is the last farmer left in Fangshan in the Jiangsu Province. As the rural landscape literally shrinks, Lao Li and his wife struggle to maintain their livelihood in this moving and lyrical documentary.
ADDRESS UNKNOWN Director/Writer: Guo Xiaolu 2006 | 10 mins | Video | Color | Experimental | Mandarin w/ES From an apartment in Beijing, a woman writes postcards to a man in London. We do not see the woman or the man, only everyday scenes of Beijing that the camera fixes on with a sense of melancholy and longing.
GUARDING SHANGRI-LA Directors: An Tongqing, Li Xiaoming, Xie Qin 2005 | 35mins | Video | Color | Documentary | Chinese w/ES The legendary Shangri-la is situated in Jinjiang in the Yunnan Province, where the most spectacular site is the Tiger Leap Gorge. The gorge area, however, is about to be transformed by a new dam. The villagers decide to oppose the planned changes and seek to express their concerns.
SAN YUAN LI Directors: Cao Fei, Ou Ning 2003 | 45 mins | Video | Color | Experimental Documentary | Chinese w/ES
Commissioned by the 50th Venice Biennale, this cine-poem explores the “village-amid-the-city” phenomenon of San Yuan Li, or “triple prime back lane,” in the rapidly urbanizing city of Guangzhou. The filmmakers penetrate the village as a kind of “city flâneurs,” capturing the architecture and tension brought on by the changes.
Organized by: Curated by Asian CineVision, Inc. Co-sponsored by REEL China and dGenerate Films.
Sponsored by: Patron: Digital Plus
Supporters:Beyer Blinder Belle: Architects & Planners; EDAW ; Jerome and Kenneth Lipper Foundation
Friend:Bartco Lighting; Häfele; Ibex Construction; Let There Be Neon; Calvin Tsao
Location: Center for Architecture, 536 LaGuardia Place (Directions)
The cinema blogosphere just got even smarter and classier. Someone’s going to have to eat their words.
Special kudos to the Chicago Reader for allowing all of Jonathan’s writing for the Reader to be accessible on his new blog.